In 2014, the Egyptian government adjusted the way it keeps staple foods—like bread—affordable. Instead of subsidizing flour for bakeries that make baladi (rustic) bread, with the introduction of a smart card system it has shifted to subsidizing the actual loaves being sold. Previously, subsidized flour and bread were being bought cheap and sold high. The new approach limits to five the number of loaves a person can buy each day, making it harder to game the system, as well as making sure that affordably priced bread reaches the most vulnerable members of Egyptian society.
Effective targeting is important because—owing to political and economic turmoil—more people in Egypt are short of money for food now than they were about a decade ago. Extreme poverty has increased to about 26% in FY 2012/2013 from almost 17% in the Fiscal Year (FY) 1999/2000. And close to half Egyptians (49%) are classified as ‘poor’ or ‘vulnerable’ because they don’t have money for other basic human needs, like health and education.
Baladi bread wasn’t the only food affected by the policy reforms. Previously, most Egyptians were eligible for a monthly basket of low-cost foods, such as cooking oil, sugar, rice and macaroni. The new system gives the majority of Egyptians a small monthly allowance on a smart card. Any credit left over from baladi bread can be converted into points, providing incentives to buy other foods as well.
Low-income households also need access to finance. The International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, works with local business associations in Egypt on microfinance, providing technical assistance to help them build resilience and institutional capacity, and diversify their product portfolios.
Egypt’s social protection system—broadly defined—commands a large share of the state’s annual budget, but historically, its impact on poverty and developing human capital has been limited. The July 2014 reforms include the gradual liberalization of energy prices over a period of 5–10 years. The government has already allowed the cost of fuel and electricity to increase, allocating about half the EGP 51 billion or US$6.7 million it’s saved to sectors that include social protection programs, especially the reform and expansion of social safety nets.
But in 2013/14, more than 7% of Egypt's GDP still went toward financing energy subsidies, two-thirds (68%) of which benefited the two richest tiers of Egyptian society most. In real terms, this amounted to more than what the government spent on health, education, and public investment combined.
The government is taking other steps, though, to do a better job of getting state support directly to the poorest of the poor. Aside from rationalizing existing policies, in 2012, Egypt set up a Labor Intensive Works Program that is part of the Social Protection Fund, which is supported by the World Bank and the European Union (EU). Focusing on regions, such as Upper Egypt, which lag behind in development, it provides temporary jobs for job seekers, especially unskilled and young workers.